Writing fiction: spelling out times in dialogue?

Ugh, I know the subject line sucks, sorry guys. Basically, let’s say you’re writing a story where the time of an event is pretty important, and it comes up in a character’s dialogue. To take a pretty convoluted example:

“According to the witness, he checked the store’s safe at eight forty-five and everything was okay. By 9PM he left the shop. By 9:05 he was on Prince Street, by nine oh eight he reached the subway, which means he was nowhere near the store when the burglar broke in at a quarter past nine.”

Note that I purposely wrote the times in different, inconsistent ways; I’d obviously prefer to be consistent and correct. Now, normally I’d spell out all numbers in dialogue, but when it comes to the time “9:05” or similar, I can’t help but think “nine oh five” looks terribly old fashioned.

So can fellow writers or editors rewrite the sentence so that it’s correct – or at least, so that the time formats read better as dialogue?

“I worked on this till nine last night, but came to no real rule,” the witness said.
“And by 9:30?” the district attorney asked.
“By half past ten, or maybe by 9:35, I decided to use whatever format is least distracting.”
“Least distracting?”
“Write the time in words for round amounts, and in numbers for odd amounts.”
“Won’t that lead to using two or more formats in the same dialogue?”
“In that case,” the witness admitted, “I would break my own rule in order to make the text read smoothly.”
“So there is no firm rule?”
“None, at all.”
“No further questions, your honor.”

“Your witness, Mr. Burger.”
“Am I to understand that you worked on your answer until, and I’ll be generous here, a quarter to ten last night?”
“Why then, did you not deliver your answer until 6:11 PM today?”

My advice is to pick your style and learn to love it. In creative writing, I feel, you don’t necessarily need to stick to The Chicago Manual of Style. Your style may even be writing it out differently every time. Depending on the story, that might present a slightly off-kilter feel to the narrative, it that’s what you’re shooting for.

You’ll pay for this, Superman. Oh, how you’ll pay.

Thanks for the answers so far … though I’m no closer to a decision than I was, alas. I wanted a nice, predictable rule to follow, and y’all are forcing me to use my taste. That sucks. :slight_smile:

To be honest ideally I’d rewrite the whole thing to avoid the time problem – I’d change 9:05 to 9:10 so I could just write it as “ten after” – but I’m editing someone else’s work, not writing my own. I’ll probably use “nine” and “9:05” even though the inconsistency grates on my obsessive-compulsive tendencies.

Unless someone has another rule I can use…?

“According to the witness, everything was okay when he checked the safe fifteen minutes before he left at nine pm. It took him five minutes to get to Prince Street, and three minutes after that he was at the subway. So he was nowhere near the store when the burglar broke in at quarter past nine.”

That’s how I’d write it; this avoids the character sounding like he’s reading from a timetable while still making the sequence and timing of events clear to the reader.

You’re asking the reader to do addition? It’ll never work. Seriously. It’ll never work.

Giving times in supposed dialog as they would appear in print is a convention. Everybody is familiar with it. Conventions are easier to understand than purported reality. That’s why they become established.

The responses not only answered my question at 3 in the morning, but they made me giggle, too. Thanks.

From advice in a different thread, I recently read a couple of Dorothy Sayers’ Peter Wimsey novels, and note that she uses the numerals. Being British and of an earlier time, she uses a period… “He was still alive at 3.15.”

If the person actually says, “He was still alive at 3:15” I would use the numerals, and not go into the spelled-out version. “He was still alive at three-fifteen” seems awkward. It takes an extra half second to realize it refers to clock time. The “three-fifteen” could be a line of odds, or the local subway train or a range of numbers… It doesn’t scream “o’clock!” the way “3:15” does.

For me, it is far easier on the eye and brain to give these times numerically, especially when presenting a chronology of events:

According to the witness, he checked the store’s safe at 8:45 and everything was okay. By 9:00 he left the shop. By 9:05 he was on Prince Street, by 9:08 he reached the subway, which means he was nowhere near the store when the burglar broke in at 9:15.

You tell me things like “quarter past nine” and “nine oh eight”, and I have to mentally convert it to numerical to grok it. In fact, I skimmed over the times that didn’t present it numerically, so if the times are a key point in your story, it shouldn’t be written any other way.

Y’know, I have literally no idea what I was editing / writing when I originally posted this question. :slight_smile: Right now I would have no trouble writing the numbers as numbers, so I’m not sure what I was so anal retentive about in the first place. Weird.

Oopsie, I didn’t notice it was a zombie. Oh, well… FWIW, I was thinking in terms of prose fiction.